“I hope [readers] walk away with questions—about our world, about themselves”: A conversation with Matthieu Chapman

Matthieu Chapman’s Shattered: Fragments of a Black Life—stories from the life of a black man that offer a riveting and heart-wrenching examination of how antiblackness infiltrates every aspect of black life in America—will be published by West Virginia University Press on August 1. (Available now through our website!) Here Chapman talked with his editor at the press, Sarah Munroe.

I’m going to say up front that Shattered is not an easy read. The prose itself is fluid and accessible, but many of the experiences you relate are difficult and even traumatic, and the slivers of social and structural history and analysis you include, particularly your lens of Afropessimism, will be challenging for some (though your book helped me understand it much better). Some may consider the memoir polemical or too political, and one of the absences quotes a white editor—in an email two days after the murder of George Floyd—calling it “an angry book” that places too much import on “rage and resentment.” What is your response to that? Has it changed over the past three years? Do you see your writing, the telling of your own story, in the context of our nation, as being angry, rageful, resentful? Why is your telling necessary?

My initial response to that email was laughter. I mean, what else can you do? I don’t think the book is angry. I think it’s honest. I think it’s funny at times. I think it’s painful at times. I think it’s happy at times. But I also think it engages with topics and perspectives that white people never have to engage with unless they choose to. So when I got this comment from this white woman editor, I couldn’t help but laugh. Why did she focus on anger?

I don’t think it’s angry, but I do think that any action or emotion from a black person other than submission or gratefulness reads as violence to a white person. So when I wasn’t writing joy or resistance or gratefulness, the only other option was to fall back on the last remaining trope of blackness most white people know: rage.

And no, my response hasn’t changed. Because it’s still funny as hell to me. It’s mindboggling to me how limited the narratives are for black people in this world. If it isn’t black Joy, black Love, or black Resistance, it isn’t of interest to most publishers because they can’t sell it to white people. And limiting most white folks’ exposure to blackness only to narratives that are comfortable to white people is incredibly damaging to black people.

Ultimately you want lasting societal change. What part do you think anger and rage play in black resistance and revolution?

For me, rage and joy are a matter of perspective. If black people took the streets and had a true revolution—liberated prisons, abolished police, dismantled capitalism—that seems pretty joyful to me. I would be dancing in the streets.

But the antiblack world would call that anger and rage and violence.

So rage and joy are two sides of the same coin—what’s joyful to the oppressed probably won’t be so joyful to the oppressor. But I always tell my students that if your manner of protest doesn’t land you in jail, then it’s because those in power know it won’t be effective. Martin Luther King Jr. went to jail. Rosa Parks went to jail. Stokely Carmichael went to jail. And while their lives and narratives have been appropriated to justify violence against black people who utilize the same tactics today, back in their day I bet America thought MLK was one angry n——.

In the author’s note, you define Afropessimism as:

a field of theory that distinguishes antiblack racism from other forms of racism. As such, the problem of race for black people is not white supremacy—in which all non-white races suffer equally compared to whiteness—but rather the problem is antiblackness—in which all nonblacks maintain a structural position of human from which blacks are excluded. In other words, black people are nonhuman, and everyone else is human.

You also note that you, like many, struggled with the term and its implications, and then you took a critical theory course on Afropessimism with Frank Wilderson III, who coined the theory. Why was it difficult for you to come to terms with it, and what changed for you?

I think my initial struggle with the term was based on a misunderstanding on my part. I heard Afropessimism and my first thought was “Why be pessimistic about black people? If anything, we should be optimistic about all we’ve done despite everything against us.” And I heard social death and was out. Who wants to wake up every morning, look in the mirror, and go, “I am living in a world that not only views me as dead, but relies on my death to sustain their life”? That’s some heavy, heavy stuff to deal with.

And it wasn’t for a few years until I was able to get past the sentimental and emotional rejection of the field and its arguments to recognize that it’s not pessimism about black people—it’s the pessimism of blackness. Why, after all of our history and present and the continued afterlives of slavery and the processes of segregation and mass incarceration and extrajudicial police killings of black people and the growing racial wealth gap and blah and blah and blah—why after and through and during all of this should black people be anything put pessimistic about this world and its desire and drive to recognize black life? It’s stunning to me how in fifty years, we went from shouting “black Power” to begging people to recognize that “black Lives Matter.” How is that progress for black people? When asserting humanity backslides into begging not to die?

So what changed was finally recognizing that this field wasn’t telling me anything about myself that I didn’t know, but rather this field was giving me a vocabulary to explain what I did know through personal experience. It allowed me to articulate why a cop felt empowered to pull a gun on a fifteen-year-old kid for nothing more than crossing the street. It allowed me to understand how my mom could say she loves me in one breath and call my dad “nigger” the next. It allowed me to explain why a fourth grade classmate would use my race to bully me and connect with the other white kids. All that stuff began to make sense once I had this vocabulary.

What about “black joy”—are Afropessimism and black joy mutually exclusive? How do you see them interacting?

What do we mean when we say black joy? I’ve never been hanging out with a bunch of black people—not at a card game, not at a cookout, not at Christmas—and said or thought to myself, “Man, look at all this black joy!”

So the joy of black people and black joy are not the same thing. Of course, black people experience joy. But why does joy need a qualifier when it comes to us? Because black joy isn’t about black people—it’s a packaged, commodified version of blackness that the media and publishers put out to appeal to white people. This is why I say black joy is the new minstrelsy: minstrelsy wasn’t just about people putting on blackface and ridiculing blacks. It was about presenting a sanitized version of blackness that was palatable and consumable to white people. This commodified blackness had no interest in the nuances and particularities of black life and black culture, but rather held its interest in producing a version of blackness that white people could spectate on their terms—specifically terms that allowed them to distance themselves as white people from their role in maintaining antiblackness.

So now, black joy has become that sanitized narrative of blackness that is sold to white people. It’s not concerned with nuance or blackness—it’s about selling. It’s about continuing to profit off of and exploit our flesh for the comfort of white people. As far as how it interacts with Afropessimism, I can’t help but think that if the world ends and our new world doesn’t function on a black/nonblack antagonism, we’d have no use for black joy. It would become indistinguishable from just—joy.

Shattered uses some nontraditional formatting and organization. Rather than chapters, you have fragments, and within those fragments are facets, shards, slivers, absences, and splinters. The names all go thematically with the title, of course, but can you talk about how you conceive them as distinctive and how their look on the page reinforces the content?

There is an interview from like twenty years ago between Saidiya Hartman and Frank Wilderson where Hartman says, “It just seems that every attempt to emplot the slave in a narrative ultimately resulted in his or her obliteration.” And that line stuck with me. She is critiquing how the very ways in which we read and understand stories cannot account for the specificities of blackness as a being with an ontology that is distinct from the human subject. And I like her use of the word “obliterated”—to destroy utterly, wipeout, cause to become invisible.

That line really became the impetus of how this book came to be structured: what would a narrative look like that did not obliterate the slave, or at least showed how that obliteration functioned? What pieces from beyond my lived experience are necessary to fully comprehend that experience? This book attempts to show the ruptures and fractures that occur in narratives of blackness in an antiblack world—it shows the histories and theories that must be accounted for in order for my story to have coherence. So the narrative is composed of fragments, the scattered remains of a whole. But nothing that is obliterated shatters cleanly and reassembling the pieces is not so easy. Each fragment has multiple sides—facets—through which to view the personal narrative of my life. But to be able to offer any semblance of wholeness to the fragment, you have to recognize the shards and slivers—the other moments of my history and of American history that inform the world’s views and pathologies of blackness. And even when you think you have all the pieces, when you try to reassemble them, they don’t fit together cleanly—cracks are visible, perhaps widening near the corners. A near imperceptible bit at the junction of three pieces disappears into the carpet. And these pieces that are gone, these absences, are just as much a part of the whole as the pieces that remain. This book tries to make all of that work—the breaking and reassembling of narrative to accommodate an ontological abject blackness—visible on the page, both in storytelling and formatting.

Much of Shattered covers painful and highly personal events and interactions, many with family. Was it difficult for you to write about? Have you tried writing about it before? Are you concerned about reactions from your family/extended family?

Honestly, it wasn’t difficult for me to write about. I know that probably isn’t what people want to hear, but it just wasn’t. Prior to this, most of my writing, or at least my serious writing, had been academic writing, and when I set out to write this, it wasn’t a memoir. It didn’t actually really become a memoir until my third of fourth round of revisions, so I think when I started writing, the book was so analytical that I was able to divorce myself from the experiences contained within. And then as the book became so personal, I had already processed the stories by engaging in this third person analysis. Oddly enough, my first couple of rounds through, I was acting more like the analyst, so by the time I became the analysand, I had processed the grief and trauma and anger . . . even though some folks still read it as angry (laughs).

And I’m not concerned with reactions from anyone, really. If someone is upset with what I said, I’m happy to talk about it, but I told my truth. I am at peace with everything I wrote.

You recently posted on Twitter an experience you had as a black faculty member in which only one of the five students in your class completed the final paper, and when they received bad grades in the class, the administration took the word of four white students over you, the instructor, and your syllabus. The tweet has received thousands of likes and some of the comments contain similar stories. How do you think your book might help or relate to other black academics and faculty members and their experiences? What do you hope readers will come away with?

This is a tough question for me, because I legitimately don’t know and can’t venture a guess. One thing I often teach my directing and playwriting students is that we can never control how an audience will connect with our work or what they’ll walk away with. The best we can do is be as clear as possible with what we are saying. As far as what I hope people will walk away with, I hope they walk away with questions—about our world, about themselves. That’s the best I can hope for. But with the way this country is going, I imagine quite a few people will walk away with kindling and something to add to their ban list.

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